Monday, May 6, 2024

Race Report: Belfast City Marathon

On May 5, I ran the Belfast City Marathon.  This is a race I was originally scheduled to run in 2020.  It was one of many international trips that I had to cancel that year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Belfast is the capitol of Northern Ireland, which has a somewhat unusual status.  Technically, it’s part of the United Kingdom, but geographically it’s part of Ireland.  Culturally, it has ties to both.  The U.K. has left the European Union, but there still isn’t any border control between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  Hopefully, it will stay that way.

Wednesday, May 1

I flew from Minneapolis to Dublin, with a layover in Boston.  My flight to Boston arrived at Terminal A, which is the only terminal that isn’t connected to the others.  To get to the international terminal for my second flight, I had to take an airport bus and then go through security again.  I gave myself three hours between flights to make sure I had a plenty of time to make my connection.

My flight from Boston to Dublin was an overnight flight.  I don’t normally try to sleep on these flights, but my entertainment system wasn’t working.  I didn’t have anything better to do, so I tried to take a nap.  I don’t think I actually fell asleep, but I got some quality rest.

Thursday, May 2

Upon arrival in Dublin, I went through immigration and customs for entry into the Schengen Zone.  From Dublin, I took an express bus to Belfast.  I got through the airport so quickly that I was able to catch an earlier bus than the one I was planning to take.

The bus ride took about two hours.  From the bus station in Belfast, I was able to walk the rest of the way to my hotel.  It was only 11:15 AM, but I was able to get into a room right away.

I stayed at the Belfast Hilton, which overlooks the Lagan River.  It was a nice central location.  From the Hilton, I could walk to all the places I wanted to see.

I had lunch at a pub that was recommended by an employee at my hotel.  Then I wandered about in the downtown area.  Among other things, I saw the Albert Memorial Clock, Belfast City Hall, St. Patrick’s Church, and the Belfast Cathedral.

Besides the expected sights, I saw a few unexpected sights.  This is why I sometimes wander down streets randomly.

I eventually circled back to the river.  This sculpture, called the Big Fish, is near the Lagan Weir Footbridge.

Next, I crossed the footbridge to enter the Titanic Quarter.  The Lagan Weir is a set of gates that keep the river level stable when the tide is rising or falling.  On one side, it’s a freshwater river.  On the other side, it’s saltwater from the Irish Sea.

I turned left and followed a walkway that eventually led to Titanic Belfast.  This is a museum about Belfast’s shipbuilding industry in general and the Titanic in particular.

My ticket to the museum also gave me admission to tour the S.S. Nomadic.  This was a tender that was used to bring passengers to the Titanic.

I saw several runners along the way.  It was a nice afternoon, and it occurred to me that the route I was walking would also be a good running route.  I went back to me hotel, so I could go for a short run before dinner.  On my way back, I saw this Beacon of Hope sculpture.

After a short run through the Titanic Quarter, I went to dinner at a restaurant that I noticed earlier when I walking through the downtown area.

After dinner, I held out as long as I could, but I went to bed on the early side.  I woke up frequently during the night, but each time I was able to get back to sleep.

Friday, May 3

I got enough sleep, but it was still difficult dragging myself out of bed.  I forced myself to get up and get in sync with the local time zone.

After eating breakfast at the hotel, I went to the marathon expo, which was held at TEC Belfast.  Then I returned to the hotel to do a workout before lunch.

I had lunch at Crown Liquor Saloon,  This is a 19th century pub that still has the vintage décor.

In the afternoon, I did a guided walking tour focusing on the history of The Troubles.  The tour was called Conflicting Stories, and it had two different tour guides.  For the first half of the tour, our guide was a Republican (i.e. someone who advocates for a united Ireland, independent from British rule).  He took us through the predominantly catholic neighborhoods and told us the history of The Troubles from the Republican point of view.

For the second half of the tour, our guide was a Unionist (i.e. someone who advocates for Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom).  He took us through the predominantly protestant neighborhoods and told us the history of The Troubles from the Unionist point of view.

The best way to understand a conflict is to hear the conflicting points of view.  I understood that each side had different motives.  I fully expected that each of our guides would paint a dramatically different version of history.  What surprised me was the extent to which they either misunderstand or mischaracterized each other’s motives.  They don’t trust each other, and they have different views of the current state of the peace process.  The peace is still fragile.  In west Belfast, the neighborhoods are still separated by a wall, and the gates are closed every night.  It will take generations before there’s a lasting peace.

I was fortunate to have sunny skies for most of my walking tour.  By the time it was finished, it was getting cloudy, and it seemed like it could rain at any time.  For that reason, I decided to have dinner at the hotel.

Saturday, May 4

I slept reasonably well, but for the second straight morning, getting out of bed wasn’t easy.  I didn’t have any early plans, but I forced myself to get up anyway.

It was a foggy drizzly morning.  I took my time with breakfast, knowing it would still be drizzly for at least another hour.

When the rain stopped, I went for a short run.  This time I went in the opposite direction and followed a towpath along the west bank of the river.  I ran to the botanical gardens and then back to the hotel.

I had lunch with two friends who live in Belfast.  I met them last year in Boston.  Vicky was doing the Boston Marathon, and her mom, Dianne, was there to support her.  We were all staying at the same hotel in Boston, and I saw them in the hotel lobby every day.

Vicky and Dianne picked me up at my hotel, and we spent a couple hours together.  It was nice to have a chance to catch up.

It was drizzly in the afternoon, so I relaxed at the hotel.  Fortunately, I had already done all of the sightseeing that I had planned.

Up until now, my meals had mostly been meat and potatoes.  For my pre-race meal, I returned to form and had pizza.  I had picked out a pizzeria in the downtown area, but when I got there, I discovered they were fully booked until 9:30 PM.  I went around the block to another pizzeria, but they were also fully booked for the night.  There was another pizzeria nearby that wasn’t open yet, so I made a point of getting there before they opened.  They were mainly a takeout place, but they did have a few tables.

Sunday, May 5

Sunday was race day.  The start was at Stormont Estate, which is about three miles from the Hilton.  The race provided free bus transportation to the start.  One of the pickup points for the bus was a train station near the Hilton.  The Stormont Estate was only a few miles away, so it didn’t take long to get there.

The temperature was in the 50s.  I would’ve been comfortable running in shorts, but I wore tights instead, knowing I would be outside for a long time before and after the race.  It was also a way of hedging my bets in case it rained.

They only had about two dozen port-o-potties in the start area for a race with thousands of runners.  The lines were insanely long.  Fortunately, they also had urinals, and I only needed to pee.  I felt bad for the women.

My goal was to break 3:45.  They had a 3:45 pace group, so I lined up with them.  We were lined up a long distance from the starting line, so I was skeptical that the people lined up in front of us were all going to be faster runners.

There were a lot of runners lined up with the 3:45 pacers.  Running next to them or behind them would make it difficult to run without bumping into other runners.  I saw a large gap in front of the group, so I went ahead of them.  When you do that, there’s always a risk that you’ll go out too fast.  I felt pretty comfortable in the first mile, so I was reasonably confident that I wasn’t going too fast.

To be on pace for 3:45, I needed to average about 8:45 per mile.  My first mile was about 20 seconds slower than that.  I was still ahead of the 3:45 pace group, so I assume congestion in the first mile kept them from getting up to pace.  I expected them to speed up, but I didn’t wait for them.  I made a point of picking up my pace in the second mile.

The early miles didn’t have any big hills, but there were gradual uphill sections and gradual downhill sections.  I used a downhill section to speed up.  On uphill sections, I was careful not to work too hard.

I ran the second mile about 20 seconds too fast.  Overall, I was right on target, but as I started the third mile, I eased up a bit.

We ran straight for just over two miles before making our first sharp turn.  By then, the course wasn’t as congested, so getting around the corner wasn’t difficult.

In the third mile, I eased up a bit.  I no longer ran the downhill portions as aggressively.  I was OK with having one mile that was too fast, but I didn’t want to make a habit of it.  Mile three was still a little fast, but it was closer to my target pace.

The air was damp.  In the start area, that made it feel cold.  Now that I had run far enough to get warmed up, I started to realize the humidity in the air was making me sweat more than usual.  I wondered if I would regret wearing tights.  In the start area, I would’ve been shivering without them.  Now, I felt overdressed.

Mile three was still a little bit fast, but in mile four I was a little slow.  My pace was erratic in the early miles.  After a fast mile, I’d slow down a little.  After a slow mile, I’d speed up again.  On average, I was going about the right pace.

At 5 miles, the 3:45 group caught up to me.  It was a big group, so running with the group was too crowded.  I picked up my effort so I could get in front of them again.

I didn’t notice any breeze in start area or in the early miles of the race.  When I finally started to feel a breeze, it helped to cool me off.

The first time I came to an aid station, they had water in plastic cups.  Most of the other aid stations had bottles.  When I reached the second water station, so many runners were rushing over to the tables that it was hard for me to get there.  I tried to go around to the last volunteer in the line, but she gave the bottles she was holding to two other runners just before I got there.  I didn’t know how frequent the aid stations would be, but I already missed one.

As it turns out, there were plenty of aid stations, but most of them only had water.  I looked at a course map in the morning, and I only noticed a few aid stations with any kind of sports drink.  I don’t carry gels or any other nutrition when I run, so I depend on getting calories from the sports drink at the aid stations.  I worried that I wasn’t going to take in enough calories.

For the first six miles, I knew we were east of the Lagan, but I wasn’t familiar with those neighborhoods, so I didn’t know exactly where I was.  Then I looked ahead and saw one of the large gantry cranes of the shipyard.  Then I knew where I was.  After the next turn, I could see the downtown buildings on the other side of the river, but we would turn again before we got there.

I reached another aid station that had bottles of water.  I’m generally skeptical about drinking from bottles, but I made a point of grabbing one.  I had a little trouble pulling the top open, but drinking on the run was easy.  The bottles were squeezable, so you could quickly squirt most of the water into your mouth.

I was pleased to see that they had large trash bins just past the aid station.  When I was done drinking, I tossed the bottle into one of the bins.  Most of the other runners were also using the bins, but I saw some bottles on the side of the road.  Water bottles on the road can be a major trip hazard.

We eventually crossed the river and turned to approach the downtown area from the south.  I immediately recognized the street we were on.  Looking ahead, I could see the clock tower.

There were yellow street signs with arrows at each turn.  I had seen some of these signs previously as I was walking through the downtown area.

Going through the downtown area, the pace group caught up to me again.  The road narrowed at several of the intersections, so once I got behind the group, it was tough to find room to get around them.

When we turned onto a wider street, I picked up my pace to try to get ahead of the group.  It seems they were also picking up the pace.  I had to work hard to get out in front of them.  For the first time in the race, the pace felt tiring.

I only heard music a few times during the race, but there was one spot where it made an impression on me.  As we were leaving the downtown area, we turned a corner, and there was large choir singing “Super Trouper” by ABBA.

At 10 miles, the 3:45 group caught up to me again.  We were going up a small hill, so it was tough for me to stay with them.  I had to wait until we were going downhill before I could speed up enough to get out in front of them.  While they were right behind me, I heard one of the pace leaders telling the group that they were about 30 seconds ahead of their target pace.  That sounded about right.

Leaving the downtown area, I didn’t have a good sense of direction.  I saw murals similar to the ones I had seen on my walking tour, so I assumed we were entering west Belfast.  In fact were going south as we left downtown.

As we ran down Donegall Road, I saw a large spherical structure ahead of us.  I didn’t know what it was at the time, but it was the Rise Sculpture.  Had I been familiar with this landmark, I would’ve had a better idea where we were.

Just past the 11 mile mark, I saw several large banners on the right side of the road.  At first, I wondered if I was coming to an aid station.  Then I saw that the banners had numbers on them.  I had seen banners like this before, but I didn’t realize what they were until now.

Besides the marathon, there was also a marathon relay.  I was coming up on the second relay exchange point.  The numbers on the banners were ranges of bib numbers.  They were showing the relay runners where to line up, so their teammates could find them.

I’ve done other marathons with relay teams, but I’ve never done one that had this many teams.  There were 2,500 relay teams.  If they weren’t organized by bib number, it would’ve been impossible for their teammates to spot them.

I was impressed with how well the relay was organized.  In general, I thought this was a well-organized race.  My only criticisms were the inadequate number of port-o-potties in the start area and the scarcity of aid stations with sports drinks.  Everything else was excellent.

By now, all of the runners around me should’ve been going at the same pace.  That wasn’t the case.  In any given mile, about of third of the runners around me were on relay teams.   The members of a relay team didn’t all run at the same pace.  Some were faster than the average pace of the team.  Others were slower.  Sometimes, I had to work to get around slower runners.  Other times, a faster runner would zoom by me.  In each case, it was a relay runner.

In miles 10, 11, and 12, I was 10-15 seconds faster than my target pace, yet the 3:15 group was always right behind me.  I was speeding up to stay in front of them.  I didn’t know why they were speeding up.

Just past the 12 mile mark, we turned onto a road that had several speed bumps.  When there are a lot of runners right in front of you, you can’t always see them coming.  As I reached the first one, I yelled “speed bump” to warn the runners behind me.  A few seconds later, I heard one of the pace leaders warning the runners in his group.  He called out each speed bump as he got to them.  There were about 10 in all.

I never saw the sign for 13 miles, so I wasn’t looking for the halfway point.  At some point, I heard two other runners talking.  One of them said, “That was halfway.”  I looked at my watch.  It was already reading 13.4 miles.  I didn’t know my halfway split, but I was guessing I was about a minute ahead of schedule.  I wouldn’t know for sure until after the race.  It was closer to two minutes.

When I got to the next aid station, I noticed behind one of the tables there were cases of blue bottles.  They looked different from the water bottles.  At that table, I saw white cups.  They were filled with Powerade.  For the first half of the race, I only saw water, but I was finally getting something with calories.

I really wanted to get more calories in my system, so I wouldn’t hit the wall later in the race.  I saw a spectator holding a tray of donuts, but I couldn’t eat anything that big without it slowing me down.

Midway through the 16th mile, I started to see murals, and I realized we were on Falls Road.  We were getting into a neighborhood that had been featured in my walking tour.  For the first time in about six miles, I knew where I was.

There was a small hill on Falls Road, but I worked hard to make sure I stayed about of the pace group.  I was rewarded with my second fastest mile so far.

I could see the downtown building ahead of me, but we turned and headed north instead.  For the next several miles, we were north of the downtown area.  I wasn’t at all familiar with this part of the city.

At 17 miles, I told myself I was two third done.  I questioned whether my current effort was sustainable, but the remaining distance was starting to seem more manageable.

In the last third of the race, I started to feel a more noticeable breeze.  My clothes were already damp with sweat, so the breeze cooled me down quickly.  At times, my hands got cold.

I got to another aid station and drank some water.  As I continued through that aid station, I saw that they also had Powerade.  This time, one of the volunteers was handing out bottles of Powerade.  I grabbed a bottle and drank as much as I could.  I didn’t help that I already drank some water.  I drank at least a pint of fluid at that aid station.  I felt bloated, but I needed the sugar from the Powerade to get me through the late miles.

At about 18 miles, we started to climb a long gradual hill.  Vicky had told me the second half of the race had some hills.  I was about to experience the toughest one.

Behind me, I could hear one of the pace leaders shouting something to the group.  I estimated they were about half a block behind me.  When I reached what looked like the summit, I could hear them closer.  They were right behind me now.

As I reached a slight bend in the road, I saw that I wasn’t really at the top.  The road briefly leveled off, but then it turned uphill again.  I was only halfway to the top.

I reached another aid station while I was still climbing the hill.  I couldn’t drink again this soon, so I skipped this one.  At this point, I was no longer worried about getting enough fluid.

After running uphill for about a mile, I finally reached the top.  I turned a sharp corner and then I started a long downhill section.  I desperately needed some downhill running to help me recover from the hill.

My time for the uphill mile was 9:10.  That was by far my slowest mile of the race.  I used the downhill to get back on pace, but my legs felt heavy now.  With seven miles to go, I wasn’t as confident.  Then it occurred to me that the 3:45 group never caught me on the hill.  They must’ve also slowed down.  I suspect they were going fast earlier to bank time so they could take the hill at an easier pace.

Just before 21 miles, I saw someone holding a tray of what looked like brownies.  I was running downhill, so I couldn’t slow down enough to grab one.  Then I saw someone else holding another tray of them.  This time I managed to grab one as I went by.  It was layers of chocolate and caramel.  It was a little difficult to eat while running, but I needed the calories.

As I reached the next corner, I saw volunteers handing out water bottles, but I couldn’t drink water while I was still chewing the brownie.  It was the second straight water station that I skipped.

When I’m running an unfamiliar course, I’ll sometimes ask myself where I would be at the same mile of a course that’s more familiar to me.  I did that at 21 miles.  If I was at the 21 mile mark of the Boston Marathon, I would be past heartbreak hill and starting a long downhill section.  Three weeks ago, at Boston, I fought hard to pick up my pace in the last five miles.  I tried to do the same thing in Belfast.

As we came back into the downtown area, we came close enough to the river that I could see the Hilton in the distance through the river valley.  A short time later, I saw the clock tower again, but this time I was seeing it from the opposite side.

At 22 miles, I reached another aid station.  For the first time in five miles, I was able to drink more water.

We ran within a block of the Hilton, but I couldn’t see it from the road we were on.  Then we turned onto a road that went under a pedestrian bridge.  I recognized this bridge.  I had run or walked along this road several times going to or from the Hilton.  It’s how I started both of my training runs.

After a few more turns, we came out onto the towpath.  I ran this same way the previous morning.  Realizing I was running something familiar gave me much-needed confidence.  I knew this section was flat except for one small bridge.

I could hear cheering from across the river.  The finish line was in Ormeau Park, which was just across the river.

We followed the towpath for about a mile.  Then we turned to cross a bridge over the river.  The small climb up onto the bridge slowed me down.

Where we came off the bridge, there were thick crowds on both sides of the street.  There were so many spectators crowding into the street that there was barely enough room for the runners to get through.

Between the spectators, I saw volunteers handing out water bottles.  I skipped the water, but then I saw volunteers on the other side of the street holding white paper cups.  The only other time I saw cups like that was at an aid station with Powerade.  I grabbed a cup.  It was Powerade.

My previous three miles had all been faster than 8:20, but in mile 24, I slowed to 8:41.  I felt like I was going uphill.  Looking ahead, I could see that the road was rising ahead of me.  We were running away from the river, and it was uphill in this direction.

I knew I couldn’t keep up the same pace as before, but I did my best to at least put in the same effort as before.  I eventually reached the top and made a 180 degree turn onto the next street over.  Now I was running downhill again.

I wanted to speed up now that I was going downhill, but first I needed to recover.  That took a block or two.  When I could, I started to accelerate.

I was curious to know what my time would be for mile 25.  Half of it was uphill, and half of it was downhill.  My time for that mile was 8:38.  That was slower than my target pace, but only by four seconds.

I knew it would be downhill until I reached Ormeau Park, and I assumed it would be flat running though the park.  With only 1.2 miles to go, I should be finishing as fast as I could.

It was hard to find the motivation.  I knew by now that I was going to break 3:45, and it wasn’t going to be close.  I was also pretty sure that I had no chance of running negative splits.  I had several fast miles in the second half, but I also had some slow ones, and mile 19 had been particularly slow.  I couldn’t make up for that.

I managed to speed up to 8:13 in mile 26.  Now I was in the park.  Looking at my total time so far, I realized I had a shot of breaking 3:43.  I was going to be close to running even splits, so I fought for it.  I finished in 3:43:58.  I ran positive splits, but not by much.

There were multiple volunteers in the finish area handing out large bottles of water.  I knew I couldn’t drink that much, so I kept moving until I got to the volunteers with the finisher medals.

Getting out of the park wasn’t easy.  The park was completely packed with runners and spectators.  The only way out of the park was to go toward the river, but I needed to get to the opposite side of the park.  I had to follow the course around the north end of the park before I could get across and out to a street that I could take to get back to the Hilton.

Cell reception inside the park was terrible, but once I got away from the crowds, I saw a message from Vicky that she and Dianne were on their way to a restaurant that was only a few blocks from the Hilton.  The Hilton was right on the way, so I went inside briefly to get my wallet and change into pants and dry shoes.

From the hotel, I could hear music coming from the marathon course.  It was “Super Trouper” again, but this time it was a recording of ABBA.

I had a snack and a couple beers with Dianne, Vicky, and a few of their friends.

Later, I had an early dinner at the pizzeria that I was hoping to go to on Saturday.  To get a table, I had to go early, but I was fine with that.  It was my first real meal of the day.

Monday, May 6

I usually sleep best the night after the race.  This trip was the opposite.  I slept reasonably well the first three nights, but on the last night, I woke up at 2 AM and it took me two hours to get back to sleep.

That was a rough start to a long travel day.  Before flying home, I needed to take a bus back to Dublin.  I was already on the bus when I found out my flight from Dublin to Boston was going to be delayed.

Because of the delay, I had lots of time before my flight.  When you fly to the U.S. from Dublin, you go through passport control before the flight instead of doing it on arrival.  I rushed through security and passport control and then found a place to plug in my laptop.

I’m posting this from the Dublin airport, because I won’t have any time when I get to Boston.  With the delay, I now have a tight connection.  Wish me luck.

Race statistics:
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  3:43:58
Average Pace:  8:30 per mile
First Half:  1:51:17
Second Half:  1:51:41
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  512
Boston Qualifiers:  165
Countries:  48

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